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In Defense of Details

June 13, 1996|MATT KRAMER

What surprises wine fanciers most is how annoyed others are about the subject. Less enthralled sorts find seemingly endless wine details irritating. And who can blame them?

You've got to keep track of vintages, vineyards, producers, district names and grape varieties. Many of these are in languages that most of us can't pronounce, let alone understand.

Wine writers (present company included) are of little help. I cannot tell a lie: Vintages do matter. Who the producer is matters even more, in the same way that you want to know who's singing the title role in tonight's opera.

Not least important is the vineyard site. If the producer is the performer, then the vineyard surely is the composer. Consistency comes from a producer's high standards. But greatness can only derive from the site itself. It's the real source of a wine's repeatable, enduring beauty.

All of this is by way of explaining why--if you're a savvy buyer on the prowl for deals--details are an opportunity rather than an aggravation.

The following wines all come from highly distinctive sites. In each case, producers matter, as does the vintage. But like a slot machine where everything lines up--vineyard, vintage and producer--you do get the big payoff: real distinction. These wines have one other feature, though. They deliver the goods at a real-world price.

* 1993 Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay Diamond Mountain Ranch Vineyard ($19): The importance of vineyard site is spotlighted by Napa Valley Chardonnays. One can say--if a bit sweepingly--that the Napa Valley floor does not deliver really distinctive Chardonnays.

Instead, the real Chardonnay action occurs in the hills above the valley floor. Or, alternatively, in the Carneros district, which lies well away from Napa Valley proper, hard against San Pablo Bay and its cool breezes.

Diamond Mountain is one of Napa Valley's hillside locations, situated in the Mayacamas Mountains. Although not yet an officially recognized appellation, there's no question that there is--in the wines themselves--such a place as Diamond Mountain. Several producers--Sterling, Von Strasser and, oldest of all, Diamond Creek--make exceptional Cabernets from Diamond Mountain sites.

All of these Diamond Mountain Cabernets share common features: They are rich, almost resinously earthy. Not least, they are famously long-lived. Elevations range from 600 feet (Diamond Creek) to 1,700 feet (Sterling).

But a Diamond Mountain Chardonnay is a curiosity. Only Sterling Vineyards produces one, in its high-elevation Diamond Mountain Ranch Vineyard. Not every vintage of Diamond Mountain Ranch Chardonnay has been successful. The 1993, however, is a stunner.

The best vintages have given us extraordinary Chardonnays, with a strong stony-mineral taste that most drinkers do not usually associate with California Chardonnay. Like the reds in this appellation, Diamond Mountain Chardonnay is long-lived, aging well for more than 15 years in the best vintages.

The 1993 vintage Sterling Diamond Mountain Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay is one of the most appealing renditions seen in recent years. It is unfined and unfiltered, and one taste tells you that this Chardonnay could not have come from just anywhere. The signature stoniness is present, yet there's an impressive textural richness as well. The depth of the fruit is revealed by the fact that it was aged in small oak barrels for 20 months--which is an unusually long time. Yet the fruit is so substantial that there's no woodiness or oakiness present.

This is a California Chardonnay for those who insist they like only white Burgundies. It promises to age beautifully for years to come. At a street price of $16.95, it's one of the best deals around in truly distinguished Chardonnay.


1992 Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($25.99): If I had to seduce a newcomer to California Cabernet Sauvignon, I would head immediately to Stags Leap District. Collectively, its Cabernets are unique, with a soft luxuriousness allied to flavors of black currants mingled with bittersweet chocolate.

Only about a dozen producers are lucky enough to create a Stags Leap District Cabernet, as the appellation is small (roughly 1,400 acres of vines--or about 5% of the Napa Valley appellation). Nearly all Stags Leap producers do a first-rate job. Some now command sky-high prices, more than $60 a bottle. But for the moment, the insider's deal comes from Stags' Leap Winery.

The skinny on Stags' Leap Winery is that it owns what may be Stags Leap District's single best vineyard site. Yet for years it was an underachiever, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon. (It has a following for its very good Petite Sirah.)

Finally, in 1989, owner Carl Doumani made up his mind to do better. He brought in a new winemaker, Robert Brittan, who has done wonders with the wine. Vineyard yields were lowered. The winemaking became dramatically more refined, bringing the Stags' Leap Winery Cabernets alive with a new vibrancy and purity.

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